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Hortense Ward

Hortense Ward served as chief justice of the
All-Woman Supreme Court.

Miriam A. Ferguson

"Ma" Ferguson was elected the first female governor of Texas in 1924. Ironically, she was opposed by many former suffragists.

Jessie Daniel Ames on the 1924 election

Jessie Daniel Ames supported Mrs. Ferguson
in the primaries, only to be disillusioned.

George C. Butte on academic freedom

George C. Butte, dean of the University of Texas law school, was the Republican candidate
opposed to the Fergusons. Many women
cast their first Republican vote for Butte.




The Battle Lost and Won

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The All-Woman Supreme Court

In 1925, Texas attracted national attention for what the press dubbed the "All-Woman Supreme Court." Governor Pat Neff, who had pioneered the appointment of women to state boards and to his staff, took the step of appointing three female justices to hear an unusual case. The fraternal organization Woodmen of the World was in a land dispute in El Paso that had been appealed to the Texas Supreme Court. The Woodmen were a powerful political organization of the day, and their membership included many prominent men of the state--including all three justices of the Supreme Court.

The justices were forced to recuse themselves from the case. Neff tried in vain to find male attorneys to appoint to hear the case, only to find that each man he approached was also a Woodman. Finally, Neff decided to appoint three female attorneys to hear the case. After some effort to find women who had been practicing the legal minimum of seven years, he settled on three prominent lawyers--Hortense Ward of Houston, Ruth V. Brazzil of Galveston, and Hattie L. Henenberg of Dallas. The All-Woman Supreme Court began its work on the case in January, 1925, shortly after Miriam A. Ferguson took office as Texas' first female governor. In May they announced their ruling in favor of the Woodmen.

Despite the novelty of the case, women continued to be at a legal disadvantage in Texas for many years to come. It was not until 1954 that women were allowed to serve on juries, and not until 1982 that a woman was appointed to serve full-time on the Texas Supreme Court.

Ma Ferguson

In 1924, women activists found themselves in an unexpected position. Reform governor Pat Neff (see Portraits of Texas Governors for more) was stepping down. Two leading candidates emerged in the Democratic party to replace Neff. One was Felix D. Robertson, a Dallas leader of the Texas Ku Klux Klan. The other was Miriam A. Ferguson, the wife of the impeached arch-enemy of the suffrage movement, James E. Ferguson. (See Portraits of Texas Governors for more on Ma Ferguson.) "Ma" Ferguson openly acknowledged that she was running as a puppet candidate of her husband. At rallies she made a brief statement introducing "Pa," then turned the platform over to him. Her campaign slogan was "Two governors for the price of one." Ferguson beat Robertson in a runoff election to capture the Democratic party nomination and assure her election as governor.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, many of the former suffragists found themselves unable to bring themselves to support Ferguson. Instead, they did what was then almost unthinkable in Texas politics. They crossed party lines and supported the Republican candidate, George C. Butte, dean of the University of Texas law school. Ordinarily, Republican candidates for governor polled between 11,000 and 30,000 votes statewide. In the election of 1924, Butte received over 294,000 votes -- most of them from women.

Not surprisingly, Ma Ferguson's term in office proved to be as rife with corruption as her husband's had been. In 1926, women activists mobilized to defeat Ma, throwing their support to Dan Moody (see Portraits of Texas Governors for more). The year 1926 also saw the election of the first woman to the Texas State Senate, Margie Neal of Carthage. Four women also won election to the Texas House of Representatives. Women were serving across Texas in local offices, such as county treasurers, school superintendents, county clerks, and tax assessor-collectors, and more than two dozen women were serving on appointed state boards.

Profile: Margie Neal (1875-1971)

Margie NealMargie Neal was born in Clayton and spent most of her life in Carthage. In 1903 she became editor and publisher of a weekly newspaper, the East Texas Register, which was owned by her family. She served as district chair in the suffrage fight and was the first women to register to vote in Panola County. Neal was the first woman appointed to the board of regents of the state teachers' colleges and the first woman member of the state Democratic executive committee. In 1926, she was elected to the Texas Senate, where she concentrated on education reform, funding for rural schools, and rehabilitation for the handicapped. She left the Senate in 1935 to go to Washington to work for the National Recovery Administration and the Social Security Administration. She returned to Texas during the war to work for the Manpower Commission. She retired to Carthage in 1945 where she continued to be active in civic affairs for many years.

Photo from The Life of Margie Neal, by Walter Lawrence Harris, University of Texas, 1955. Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.


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Page last modified: August 24, 2011